Growing in a hydroponic home farm – great light or not!

Alot of friends in the city don’t have much space to garden.  There’s hardly any back yards, community gardens have waiting lines and hauling potting soil to your rooftop is a bit too intense for some people.  But don’t worry – you can still grow herbs and small vegetables right in your home.  It doesn’t even mater if you don’t have alot of light, we can make this work!  Another bonus, since you are growing inside, you don’t have to deal with insects or pests.. but I can’t guarantee your cat won’t want to nibble on that yummy lettuce.  (I had to google cats + lettuce.  What an amazing result:)
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Let me introduce you to my friend, the hydroponic home farm.  Hydroponic growing is a bit different than regular growing as it doesn’t use any soil.  The famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, are believed to have grown according to hydroponic principles, so it’s been around for quite some time!  Instead of soil the roots grow in clay balls.  You want to something like clay (or rock wool) because it allows good root ventilation, and doesn’t grow algae.  This is going to allow your water drip system to drip right onto your plant, run down into the rocks, get your roots wet (causing your plant to grow) and continue down to the next plant.  Because we won’t be getting nutrients from our soil, you will need to use a liquid plant food to feed your plants the vitamins your soil would regularly give you.  These plant foods are easy to find online or at a garden center.    You’ll need light because we  need some photosynthesis action to take place here.  If you have natural light, then set up your hydroponic system next to that light.   If you don’t have natural light you can use a 6500 Kelvin Daylight Balance Fluorescent bulb.   We have grown with these bulbs at the other side of our loft where it’s completely dark and it’s worked well. Now we have it set up next to the window though where we only turn the light on when it’s cloudy out, or during the months when daylight is shorter.   If you can’t remember to turn on your light you can also buy a timer which we often use in the winter time, with this you just set a time and the light will turn on and off when you want it to.  Lastly, you’ll need a aquarium pump which will push your water from your bottom reservoir all the way to the top and that will start the continuous watering.  

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There are already made systems that you can buy, we use a first generation Window Farm which was actually made by someone who attended the same grad school (NYU ITP) that Matthew went to.  If you don’t want to buy it, there are lots of great tutorials online on how to build your own DIY version.  

Because the containers to grow in aren’t huge, I recommend growing smaller plants that do not have giant roots.  We’ve had success with basically every herb, lettuce, spinach, swiss chard and even small strawberries and tomatoes.  We’ve tried experimenting with larger root plants but let’s just say you can’t grow a pumpkin in it. (hey, had  to try!)

The other great thing about growing inside your home is you still get the feeling of outdoors.   When it’s a rainy, gloomy day and you’re feeling a bit blue, you can still mope around your home and smell fresh basil and grab some fresh mint.
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So let me show you how it all works.
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We usually grow everything from seed.  So if you are going this route, just start them in some cups in your home.    The tricky part is when you have to transplant them from their cup to the hydroponic system.  You do this by delicately digging the root out, and shaking all the dirt away.    An alternative is buying herbs that are already started at your local garden center or nursery if you are scared of the whole starting from seeds process.  This is tougher because since they are already larger, their roots are bigger as well, so you need to be careful separating their roots not to tear them.  If you go this route, you really need to shake the roots as there will be alot of dirt attached.  Basically what we want here is the plant and roots, try to get all the dirt you can off.

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Or to make it much easier you can buy hydroponic sponges, where you can just plant the seed in that and put the entire sponge into the cup. 

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Then we add each plant into it’s own little cup and add clay balls. Try to mound the clay balls around the entire plant to support it’s stem.  This is especially important in the beginning stages of the plant.

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Keep adding the pellet balls to the cup until it’s completely full and the plant feels sturdy in it’s new home.

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This cilantro is good to go.

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2 to the left are cilantro, 2 to the right are basil.  Note how small they are now…

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Because just in a few weeks, they will be much bigger and ready for you to start pulling herbs off.

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Always remember to keep your hydroponic system full of water.  The way ours works is there are bottom containers that we fill up to the top with a little watering can.  This can here has a awesome flexible neck so it can bend.   The water will constantly bubble as the aquarium pump is pushing the water all the way up to the top and then trickling down the system. 

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And here is how our plants get their nutrients.   Read the back of each container to know how much plant food to give your system.  I find the least messy way to get your liquid nutrients into the system is to get a syringe, fill it up in the container then empty into each of the water reservoirs.  

Now on to how the plants are doing just a few weeks after being placed in our Window Farm.
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Here’s 2 of our mint plants.  I love these guys because I rip a few leaves off everyday for smoothies and iced tea.

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Here’s one of our 2 basil plants.  We are constantly picking off basil for pizza, sauces and pasta.  I love the idea of just walking a few feet from the kitchen, tearing some herbs and throwing them in the dish.

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And can we talk about how pretty those basil leaves are?

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A word about basil, these guys can grow to be monsters.  Ours grow to be about 2 feet high which means we usually grab some velcro and attach them to the system to keep them supported.   As the plant  matures, it’s roots are going to grow bigger as well and this can cause blockage with the roots for the water to get to the next cup.   This can end up in a overflow water disaster as if there is no place for the water to go, it’s just going to overflow onto your floor.  So keep a eye on your plants and if you see the roots growing through the bottom of the bottle, then act on it.  When I see this, I try to help the roots grow in a better path, or know the plant has reached it’s maturity in this system and just pull the entire plant to use (and immediately start some new seeds! 🙂 )

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Here’s our beautiful cilantro plant.  We are growing 4 of them.  I use these all the time in salads, bean dishes, tacos, rice.  I love cilantro.  It’s also one of my favorite smelling herbs.  Creepy girl in the supermarket smelling cilantro?  That’s me.  But now I can just creep out  my husband and grow it at home.   See, it’s great for everyone involved!

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It’s pretty fun  to watch cilantro plants expand and get new growth.

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I love you cilantro.  

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Cilantro, Mint and Basil.

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So start grabbing your favorite herbs and get planting!  Great light or not, you can do this! 

What else can you grow besides herbs?
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We’ve grown lettuce with much success.  Just know as the plants get larger they are going to need more water, so keep those containers filled.

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We’ve grown cherry tomatoes which tasted great.

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With larger plants like tomatoes and strawberries, plan accordingly as they are going to engulf your system.  So you might want to keep herbs lower to easily get to them.  (Note here: the pumpkin experiment in the bottom left). (Note here again:  Everything here is grown with no window light, all artificial light, so you can grow even if your home is like a cave!).

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I would like to end this post by thanking my special helper FiFi Bofinkles who stood on the step stool with me the entire time and slept on my feet while I balanced to take pictures.  Thank you girl.

 

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